The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus  O.C.D.

The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus O.C.D.

The impact of her posthumous publications, including Story of a Soul published shortly after her death, are extremely significant. The originality of her spirituality, also called the theology of the “Little Way” of “spiritual childhood”, has inspired multitudes of believers and also deeply affected many non-believers. Thérèse’s “little way” is understood simply to mean that we only need to… Continue reading The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus O.C.D.

The Canticle of Brother Sun

The Canticle of Brother Sun

St. Francis reaffirms the divine character of Creation also in its material aspects, against the Cathars, who in those same years claimed that God had created the spiritual reality, while the material reality was of demonic origin. St. Francis of Assisi also argues against the mercantile mentality that was rapidly spreading throughout the known world and for which nature was being exploited simply for economic purposes, while the saint from Assisi argues that nature provides man with everything he needs and therefore invites us not to worry about scrambling about continuously, seeking ever greater but useless material goods. Continue reading The Canticle of Brother Sun

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica

Article translated from the l’Osservatore Romano Monday-Tuesday 3-4 February 2014, p. 4. article by Giovanni Preziosi translated by Fr. Vincent Courtney ESB (csr) The Hermits of Saint Bruno at St. Mary’s Hermitage.

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the fascist raid on the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls at the Piazzale San Paolo in Rome.

San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

Not even their Osservatore Romano, Vatican issued ID card would save them.

After having brought to a successful conclusion the blitz within the extraterritorial complex of Basilica of Saint Mary Major, between 3-4 February, 1944. Under favourable darkness of the night, a Special Service of the police department of the Republic of Salò, directed by Lieutenant Pietro Koch, with a complement of one hundred men placed at his disposal by the new Fascist commissioner of Rome Pietro Caruso, utterly ignoring and without the slightest regard to the agreements enshrined within the Lateran Pact of 1929 and the extraterritorial buildings under the protection of the Holy See, Koch and his men through subterfuge entered into the Benedictine monastery of Saint Paul outside the Walls. The authentic deus ex machina of this operation had also been a former Vallombrosan Benedictine friar, having recently been suspended a divinis [which forbids the person from using authority of their Holy Orders] expressly for joining the Banda Koch (which soon became a by-word for cruelty and violence), was the twenty-eight year old Alfredo Epaminonda Troya also known as Don Ildefonso Troya —better known within the espionage confraternity of the time where he used the pseudonym of Elio Desi — with a subtle cunning, Troya had lured the unsuspecting doorkeeper Friar Vittorino into a trap, who, after a few moments of hesitation, yielding to his insistence, had opened the main entrance gate of the abbey.

Monastery of Saint Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill

The raid has been described in great detail by the chronicler of the Camaldolese monastery of Saint Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill: «The notorious commissioner of Rome Caruso with his band of bravacci [braggarts] (…) manages to cross over the threshold of the monastery and commences a night of terror for the hermit-monk’s within the walls of this monastery. Cutting all of the telephone wires thus removing all means of communication with the outside world; He and his men keeps all of the monks locked in a room with machine guns aimed at their chests for close to 12 hours while they search and rummage and pillage throughout. The monks are insulted by the inappropriate manner the monastery of the order was entered and looted by these so called officers. (…) The newspapers give voice about the events and maliciously gossip about it at length, narrating deeds and facts, giving an utterly false account of the true events. A cri de cœur rises up against the Holy See, whom in their extraterritorial and religious houses both men and items reclaimed from the German looters.»

Maj. Gen. Adriano Monti
Lt. Maurizio Giglio Murdered March 24 1944 (aged 23)

Koch’s men stealthily sneaked into the monastery, and literally turned all the hermit-monk’s cells and the apartments of the novices’ upside down. Then, under the threat of death, having loaded weapons pointed at them, Koch arrested as many as 67 people, mostly draft evaders and Jews who had arrived in dribs and drabs since the day the armistice had begun, among whom most notably was Airforce Major General Adriano Monti the Commanding Officer Sicily Air Command, whom had been surprised wearing a cassock, which had been immortalised in a photo taken by the fascists with a camera seized from an American Office of Strategic Services liaison agent, lieutenant Maurizio Giglio, whom had infiltrated Koch’s special service division. Giglio was later captured on March 17, 1944. After a final interrogation suffered on the night of 23 March, on the following 24 morning Giglio, exhausted and unable to stand up, was transported to the Regina Coeli prison. From there, Giglio was taken on a stretcher to the Fosse Ardeatine, where he was murdered, together with the other 334 martyrs, on March 24, 1944.. Among those arrested on this day were nine officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the army, fugitive police officers, carabinieri and nine Jews.

[The Fosse Ardeatine Massacre was a mass killing of 335 civilians and political prisoners carried out in Rome on 24 March 1944 by the German Nazi occupation troops during the Second World War. I wanted to share the poignant words of the memorial found at the Ardeatine:

Wayfarers thirsty for liberty – we were rounded up at random – in the street and in jail – as a reprisal cast in en masse – slaughtered and walled within these pits – italians, do not curse – mothers, brides, do not weep – children, carry with pride – the memory – of the holocaust of your fathers – if our slaughter – will have had a purpose beyond revenge – it is to enshrine the right of human existence – against the crime of murder. We were slaughtered in this place because – we fought against internal tyranny – for freedom and against the foreigner – for the independence of the homeland – we dreamt a free, just – and democratic italy. may our sacrifice and our blood – sow the seed and act as warning for – generations to come. Here we were slaughtered – victims of a horrendous sacrifice – may our sacrifice give rise to a better homeland – and to lasting peace among the peoples.

Out of the depths, I cry to you, o lord. De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine, Domine; –יהוה קראתיך ממעמקים המעלות שיר

Psalm 130 (NCB)
Pope Pius XII

The fascist press could not resist but to use such a glorious opportunity of using the photograph for propaganda purposes, and launched a harsh attack upon the Holy See and against Pius XII a barrage of insulting remarks, labelled with unflattering epithets because, in their opinion, Pius was allowing  this to happen and therefore “these actions mark [you] as a traitor” against the people of Italy. The fascists also got their hands on nine Jews, including the brothers Arturo and Umberto Soliani who, being surprised and the Nazi-fascist bullies arrival as they were asleep in their monastic cells, tried in vain to free themselves, but during the struggle they were savagely beaten up to the point that the next day, when family members received their clothing, they could not fail but noticed that their pyjamas were saturate in their blood.

As soon as Italy had entered the war, the Soliani’s had rushed to the capital city together with their children — four-year-old Alessandro and one-year-old Angelo — and their spouses Lina and Elvira Terracina, who were being hunted by the police commissioner of Brescia Manlio Candrilli [who distinguished himself particularly for his ruthlessness in hunting Jews], who he had been on their case from the day that they had opened a costume jewellery, leather goods and gift items shop called “Alla bomboniera” in corso Zanardelli 7, of the Gardone Riviera area of Brescia. Arturo and Umberto had managed to find refuge at the Abbey of San Paolo, while Lina and Elvira, with their respective children, were given refuge and hid inside a monastery of nuns, the Sisters of Good and Perpetual Help in Via Merulana [whom hid 133 jewish women and children helping them evade the Shoah]. Unfortunately, every precaution, in the end, proved to be in vain; even the identity cards issued to Arturo and Umberto as soon as they arrived in the Benedictine monastery from the Holy See, with the Vatican emblem, which certified that they were both journalists employed by the Osservatore Romano were absolutely useless as they were ignored.

Don Pier Luigi Occelli Partisan Priest

The seriousness of the incident, with the clear violation of the right of extraterritoriality sanctioned by the Lateran Pacts, obviously aroused the indignation of the Holy See which, as soon as it was made aware of the affair by the parish priest of Gesù Buon Pastore, Don Pier Luigi Occelli, the Resistance chaplain, immediately began to protest most vigorously to the competent Italian and German authorities, and without hesitation publishing a detailed background of the events in the Osservatore Romano on February 10, thus countering the article that appeared a few days earlier in the fascist newspaper “La Tribuna”. The denial of the Nazis though, was not enough to placate the irritation of the Vatican hierarchy, so much so that through the Apostolic nuncio in Bern, Monsignor Bernardini, Don Giustino Pancino was instructed to immediately urge Mussolini to take the appropriate measures and resolve the problem.

Abbey of San Paolo

As soon as Lina and Elvira learned what had happened at the Abbey of San Paolo, fearing for the fate of their loved ones, and not wanting to give up, so much so that the latter, although she was in the last months of pregnancy, defied fate, and tried absolutely everything possible, even risking her own life by going personally, first of all, to the director of the Roman prison of Regina Coeli Donato Carretta — whom just a few days earlier had favoured the daring escape made by Sandro Pertini and Giuseppe Saragat, both anti-fascists members of the Socialist Party and future presidents of the Italian Republic — Carretta immediately showed himself indulgent, revealing the possibility of freeing her husband and her brother-in-law backed by a hefty reward that would have allowed him to flee to Switzerland and away from prying eyes so as not to suffer the foreseeable retaliation from the Nazi-fascists. The promise was a tempting one, but where could she have raised such a large sum. And time was beginning to run out?

Sandro Pertini and Giuseppe Saragat

At that point all she had left as a last playing card was to contact the commissioner Pietro Caruso directly. Most certainly Elvira was not lacking courage, so much so that, without too much thought, she rushed to the police station asking to be received by Caruso whom, without hearing her out, ordered her to leave that place immediately otherwise he would have had her arrested because she was a Jew, adding that she had to thank the creature she was carrying in her womb or that he would make provisions to that effect. Unfortunately there was nothing more she could do. Every attempt to save the two men wrecked miserably and with it so also did the hope of ever being able to embrace them again one day.

In fact, together with the other Jews captured at the basilica of San Paolo, towards the middle of February, they were first transferred to Verona, then to the Fossoli transit camp and from there, on May 16, 1944, aboard Convoy № 46, to Auschwitz. from where they would never return.


Almighty God of Our Fathers, we remember the six million people carried out in pogroms and mass shootings; by a policy of extermination through labor in concentration camps; and in gas chambers and gas vans in German extermination camps. These innocents were killed, drowned, burned alive, tortured, beaten and some froze to death. Because of one man, a whole nation was crucified, while the world looked on in silence. In our hearts, their sacred memory will last forever and ever. Amen. God of Our Fathers, let the ashes of the children incinerated in Auschwitz, the rivers of blood spilled, be a warning to all of humanity that hatred is destructive, that violence is contagious, while man has an unlimited capacity toward cruelty. Almighty God, fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: “They will beat their swords into plowshares … One nation will not lift up a sword against another, nor will they ever again be trained for war.” Amen.

Please, always have the courage not to remain silent when you witness wrongdoing being perpetrated, speak out unceasingly against oppression, hate, use of force, or any other forms of injustice. Remember you could be next at the receiving end of injustice. God calls every single one of us to be peacemakers; God calls us to heal our world which is broken, and within a deep unanimity of the spirit, to work for a world in which justice flourishes, where peace thrives and becomes the norm (Psalm 72:7). Peace is not something that simply materialises from above; peace must be created and maintained by us, being built and maintained by those people who beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4), choosing to spend money for a sustainable and peaceful future rather than on the war machine.

Continue reading “On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica”


The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek word monos which means ‘alone,’ solitary.’[1] These words indicated the idea of solitude, of isolation. As we shall see, the term ‘monk’ has come to be applied to men living the same life in common —a life in which they are indeed separated from the world, but not from one another. Strictly speaking the term, ‘monasticism’, should be reserved for the form of religious life led by those who, having separated themselves entirely from the world, live in solitude — as, in fact, the etymology of the words ‘monk’, ‘monastery’, etc., clearly indicates.[2] 

Monasticism is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one’s life to spiritual work.[3] Monasticism (Greek word monos means ‘single’) usually refers to the way of life, communitarian or solitary, adopted by those individuals, male or female, who have elected to pursue an ideal of perfection or a higher level of religious experience through leaving the world. Monastic orders historically have been organised around a rule or a teacher, the activities of the members being closely regulated in accordance with the rule adopted.[4] Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called ‘monks’ or ‘brothers’ (male), and ‘nuns’ or ‘sisters’ (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called ‘monastics’.[5] 

Technically, monasticism embraces both the life of the hermit, characterised by varying degrees of extreme solitude, and the life of the cenobite, that is, the monk living in a community offering a limited amount of solitude. Monasticism always entails asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. This asceticism may include fasting, silence, a prohibition against personal ownership, and an acceptance of bodily discomfort. Almost always it includes poverty, celibacy, and obedience to a spiritual leader.[6] The goal of such practices is usually a more intense relationship with God, some type of personal enlightenment, or the service of God through prayer, meditation, or good works such as teaching or nursing. It can be found in some form among most developed religions: Hinduism,[7] Buddhism,[8] Jainism,[9] Taoism, the Sufi branch of Islam[10] and Christianity.[11] 

There were only two Jewish groups —the Essenes and Therapeutae— engaged in any form of organised asceticism. The Essenes may be regarded as one of the most striking examples of monastic life outside of Christianity. They inhabited the monastery at Qumran near the Dead Sea and appear to have lived in ascetic style, practicing chastity, poverty and obedience. The Essenes (circa. 150 BC) offer all the principal characteristics of the cenobitic life — community of goods, practice of poverty and mortification, prayer and work, meals and religious exercise in common, silence, celibacy, etc.[12] The Qumran monastery was destroyed during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD, and the fate of the Essenes thereafter is uncertain. It is unlikely that they had any impact upon Christian monasticism, which began only in the late III century.[13] Although there is no direct relationship between them, it is nevertheless true that both Essenian and Christian asceticism derived much of their practice from the same source, viz. the Jewish religion.[14] 

The Therapeutae were contemporary with the Essenes. They abandoned families and possessions in order to live in ascetic seclusion far from the noise and commotion of cities.[15] Philo of Alexandria is our sole witness to their existence. He describes them as cenobites, leading a life almost identical with that of the Christian cenobites.[16] Nevertheless they do not seem to have exercised any direct influence on Christian monasticism. 

Christian asceticism is known to have begun in Egypt about the III or the IV century AD, and is associated with St. Antony. It is believed that about the end of the III century Antony’s life as a solitary ascetic was brought to an end by a number of disciples gathering round him. So he becomes the father of Christian monasticism. It was this type of monastic life that prevailed in Egypt up to the middle of the V century AD. All later Christian asceticism and monasticism is traceable to it. 

The origins of early Christian monasticism are not clearly known and are, therefore, subject to controversy. Some scholars believe that the monastic movement was prompted by Late Jewish communal and ascetic ideals, such as those of the Essenes. Still others speculate that Manichaean and similar forms of dualism inspired extremes of asceticism within the Christian family. However, the first Christian commentators on monasticism believed that the movement had truly gospel origins. 

Christian monastics drew their spiritual strength from Christ’s emphasis on poverty and on the “narrow way” to salvation. Early monastics believed that Paul preferred celibacy to marriage. Indeed, the first nuns seem to have been widows of the late Roman period who decided not to remarry. From one point of view, the decision of some Christians to live separate from the community, both physically and spiritually, was regrettable. From another, the commitment and service of the monastics made them the most valued people in early medieval society. 

Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian church, modelled upon scriptural examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution by the scriptures. While most people think of Christian or Catholic monks or nuns as “Something to do with living in a monastery,” from the Church’s point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity. Rather, the focus is on an ideal called the religious life, also called the state of perfection. This idea is expressed in the notion that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or run is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are “be ye perfect like your heavenly father is perfect”.[17]

Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle ages. 

The first Christian hermits seem to have stablished themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, where in pre-Christian times the Therapeutae, an order of Jewish ascetics, had been established. Not long afterword the desert regions of Upper Egypt became a retreat for those who fled from the persecutions of the Christians so frequent in the Roman Empire during the III century, and for those who found the vices of the world intolerable. The earliest form of Christian monasticism was, probably, that of the anchorites or hermits; a later development is found in the pillar saints, called Stylites, who spent most of their time on the tops of pillars in order to separate themselves from the world and to mortify the flesh. After a time, however, the necessities of the religious life itself led to modifications. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common exercise of religious duties, the early hermits had an aggregation of separate called lavra or laura, to which they could retire after their communal duties had been discharged. From the union of the common life with personal solitude is derived the name cenobite (Greek Koinos bios, “Common life”) by which a certain class of monks is distinguished.[18] 

Saint Antony the Great was connected with the first Egyptian hermits; Saint Pachomius (d.46), with the first communities of cenobites in Egypt. Saint Basil the Great (f1.379), bishop of Caesarea, placed monasticism in an urban context by introducing charitable service as a work discipline.[19] 

St. Antony, who embraced solitude, established himself at Alexandria, and the fame of his sanctity, as well as his gentleness and learning, drew many disciples to him. Most of his followers accompanied him when he retired to the desert. One of his disciples, St. Pachomius who established a great monastery on an island in the Nile River, is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic manner of living. Pachomius drew up for his subjects a monastic rule, the first regulations of the kind on record. Many thousands of disciples flocked to him, and he founded several other monasteries for men and one for women under the direction of his sister. All of these houses recognized the authority of a single superior, an about or archimandrite. They constitute the original type of the religious order. The cenobitic form of monasticism was first introduced into the west at Rome and in Northern Italy by St. Athanasius, in Central North Africa by St. Augustine, and in Gaul by St. Martin of Tours. The religious revival effected by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the VI century gave Western monasticism its permanent form.[20]

Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisbis in Mesopotamia (350), and from his monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China. St. Sabbas the Sanctified organised the monks of the Judaean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.[21] 

The first monks of whom we have a good record represent an extreme phase in the evolution of monasticism. These are the so-called desert fathers, hermits, living in the eremitical style in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Enraged by sin and fearful of damnation, they left the towns for a solitary struggle against temptation. Some, like Simeon Stylites lived very exotic lives and became pilgrim attractions. More typical, however, was Antony of Egypt (c.250-356), whose commitment to salvation led him back to the community to evangelise unbelievers. His extreme asceticism deeply touched the sensibilities of the age. 

The reputed founder of Christian achoritism, Antonius, was first active in Egypt c.280-90 AD. But in 306 AD., one of his disciples visited western Syria, i.e., the intermediate region between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and reported that monasticism was as yet unknown there. 

Moreover, its origin in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia seem to date back to the end of the III century, leaving insufficient time for it to have spread from Egypt. Thus it appears that monasticism arose spontaneously and independently in Egypt and in Syria-Mesopotamia. 

The hermits (‘desert’) lived in solitude in the desert; St. John the Baptist, and later St. Paul the Hermit and St. Antony, were the first of these. Anchorites or anchorites (‘retreat’) title is synonymous with the hermits, and indicates those monks who practiced the solitary life. This form of monastic life is the most ancient; it spread, first of all, in Egypt, then in Palestine and Syria, through the whole of the eastern world, and, finally, in the West.[22]

Pachomius (c.290-346), an Egyptian monk, preferred the communal life. He wrote a rule of life for monks in which he emphasised organisation and the rule of elder monks over the newly professed. The rule became popular, and the movement toward communal life was ensured. To the idea of community Basil the Great (c.330-79) added another element. In his writings, and especially in his commentaries on the scriptures, this father of Eastern monasticism defined a theory of Christian humanism which he felt was binding on the monasteries. According to Basil, monastics should care for orphans, feed the poor, maintain hospitals, educate children, even provide work for the unemployed. 

Toward the end of the IV century the individualist asceticism of the anchorites gradually became rarer. Ascetic impulses came increasingly to be expressed through the communal life of monasteries, where monks were subject to rules and bishops supervised their activities. Small and crude monastic establishments grew in size, acquiring fields, orchards and gardens, inasmuch as an entire community of monks could not be supported solely on the charity of surrounding villages. Often the presence of monks near a town was considered lucky, and the towns-people helped to erect buildings for them. 

The original foundation of a monastery frequently came about when a widely know anchorite was joined in his solitude by a few disciples, and the anchorite failed to send them away. This happened with the monk Saba (d. 366/67 AD) of Edessa. According to his contemporary St. Ephraim, Juliana was known to the “whole world”. This outstanding anchorite inhabited a cave in the vicinity of Edessa, where the practiced severe mortification, including long vigils and severe fasts. Gradually a group of admirers gathered around his cave, and Juliana organised a rudimentary form of common life for them. The fame of Juliana Saba led other monks to follow his example. 

Ephraim compared his role in the organisation of monasteries to a huge censer that spread incense through the entire country around Edessa.[23] 

Christian monasticism grew and took institutional form in order to provide a supportive setting for those who wished to take vows of poverty and chastity, who valued the love of Christ which surpasses the love of women. As a later development, Christian monasticism is not explicitly regulated by scripture. It has taken a wide variety of forms, from solitary hermits and begging mendicants to orders dedicated to nursing, teaching, scholarship and other forms of service to the world.[24]

The Copts and their contribution to Christian Civilisation

The Copts and their contribution to Christian Civilisation

The origins of Coptic Christianity need  no great elaboration. Saint Mark the Evangelist is  its  recognised founder and  first  patriarch,  in  the fourth decade of the  first century.  During the first  two  centuries, there was a continuous admixture of paganism and Christianity in many parts of Egypt. But the fact  remains that  Christianity must have   penetrated the  country  far enough  to justify  the discovery  of the oldest   Biblical… Continue reading The Copts and their contribution to Christian Civilisation

The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition

The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition

The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition [1]

Antoine Guillaumont [2]

This Pennsylvania fragment contains an apophthegm concerning Abba Arsenius the Great.

Few writings, with the exception of the Gospels, have had in the history of Christian spirituality, a diffusion and an influence comparable to those of the collections of the Apothegmas, or Sayings of the Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum, Verba Seniorum), which they transmitted to the Christian world the teaching of the monks of Egypt, invested, before numerous generations of monks, with a value in a certain way normative. There are testimonies of these collections not only in Greek, which was the language of the first great collections, and in Latin, but also, during the first millennium, in all the languages of the Christian East: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Ethiopian; Its diffusion extends from what was then the extreme West, Spain, the homeland of one of the Latin recensions, to Central Asia, as fragments with fragments of the Gospels have been found, in the vestiges of a Christian literature written in Sogdian, an Iranian language.

The place of origin of the apothegms is, on the contrary, well defined: the deserts of Lower Egypt, known by the names of Scetis (present-day Wadi El Natrun (“Valley of Natron” in Coptic: Ϣⲓϩⲏⲧ Šihēt, “measure of the hearts”); Nitria, about 37.2 miles to the north (the site is currently in the western Delta, about 31 miles southeast of Alexandria); the Kellia or Cells ( referred to as “the innermost desert”), is about 11.1 miles south of Nitria, at the entrance to the Libyan desert. Their time is that of the first three or four generations of monks from those deserts, from the founders, Macarius the Elder called the Egyptian in Scetis, Amun or Ammonius the Hermit in Nitria and in the Kellia, both disciples of Saint Anthony the Great; It is in fact a monasticism of the Anthonian style, different from the monasticism of Upper Egypt dominated by the figure of Saint Pachomius. In those deserts the way of life was semi-anacoretism: the monks lived as solitary, in cells quite distant from each other, and met, at the end of the week, for what was called the “synaxis”, a liturgy celebrated in common, accompanied by a meal, also taken in common. It was at the times of these weekly encounters that the apothegm could be born, but more often during the visits that could be made, during the week, to these loners who, with rare exceptions, were not inmates; it is also seen, quite often, a young monk living next to an elderly or sick monk, of whom he is both the servant and the disciple. The apothegm is the answer given by an old man, a “geronte” (gérôn, a quality that is not necessarily related to age!) To the question posed by a normally younger monk, and this question has an almost stereotypical form: “ Father, tell me a word (logos), a phrase (rèma), how can I save myself ”. The questioned elder is called “father” (pater), more often with the term of Aramaic origin “abba”. But he is not a hierarchical superior invested with some authority, nor a teacher or a doctor who has the function of teaching, much less, a skilled rhetorician in making speeches. He is asked for advice only because he knows that he is a man with experience, an “old man”, and above all a man of God, a spiritual person, gratified, as they said, with the “charisma of the word”, that is, whose The word is considered as inspired: he is a character considered charismatic, which is not necessarily typical of every old man, but can be – there are examples of this – a faculty of monks who are still young.

Those who are more so —and it may seem paradoxical that the apothegms were born in that monastic environment— are those monks who by their vocation consecrate themselves to silence: to Arsenius, while he was still a high official in the imperial palace before reaching Being a monk in Scete, a heavenly voice responded to his question: “How can I save myself?”: “Arsenius, flee from men, be silent and live in the hésychia” [3]. These monks are, indeed, “hesychasts” par excellence, and the hésychia by which their way of life is defined is simultaneously solitude and silence; it is also, as is often said, “to remain seated in the cell”, since the guarding of the cell is the fundamental precept. To a young monk who comes to ask for a word to save himself, the old man replies: “Remain seated in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything!” advice would have been taken literally  cum grano salis [4], because if that advice had been taken literally, we would not have apothegms! [5] But that expression says a lot, I daresay, about the way those monks tended to teach. It is said that one day the bishop of Alexandria, Teófilo, came to visit the monks of Scete; To an elderly monk famous for his silence, they made this recommendation: “Abba, give the pope a word, so that it may be of benefit to him!”, to which the old monk replied: “If he does not take advantage of my silence, how would I benefit from my word? ”[6]. These monks in effect aimed to teach more by example than by word. The disciple is invited to imitate the teacher, rather than listen to him. A brother asks Abba Sisoes: “Tell me a word!”, And Sisoes responds: “Why do you force me to speak vainly? Look and do what you see! ” [7].

The old man therefore does not respond willingly; and when he does, he is, as is often said, “with regret”, “with great regret”; he makes him wait for his answer, sometimes for a long time: it is said that a monk came one day to meet Ammoes to ask him for a word, and only after seven days did Ammoès respond! [8] And when the old man responds, he does so in a few words: the character that most attracts the attention of the apothegm is, in effect, its conciseness; he takes the form of a sentence, sometimes turning towards the parable. The apothegm also has a concrete character: the old man easily adds to the word, the gesture, a symbolic gesture. When asked by a brother “How can I save myself?”, An old man, without saying anything, leaves his clothes, girdles his kidneys, extends his hands and then says: “This is how the monk must be, stripped of the matter of this life and crucified ”[9].

The apothegm is reduced first of all to the answer to a question; the question itself may be missing and there is an apothegm introduced only by the formula: “The abba so and so said …”. But very soon the apothegm tends to develop, and this more and more and in various ways. Sometimes the question is preceded by the evocation of the circumstances that led a brother to ask it: the apothegm then tends to take the form of a small anecdote. The answer itself may be more or less developed. Sometimes the answer given to the question posed leads to a second question; There is then a double apothegm, for example: Abba Isaías questioned abba Macarius saying: “Tell me a word!” The old man tells him: “Flee from men!” Abba Isaías tells him: “What is it to flee from men?” The old man tells him: “It is to remain seated in your cell and cry for your sins” [10]. Developing in this way, the apothegm can give rise to a true dialogue, and this can sometimes be inserted into a short story. Another form of development, more interesting for what we study: it happens that the old man, when estimating that he cannot answer by himself, responds by referring to another word; This may be a word taken from Scripture; thus: A brother questioned abba Poimén saying: “What shall I do?”, to which Poimén responds: “It is written: I will proclaim my iniquity and I will remember my sin” (Ps 37,19, Sept.) [11]. Another way, frequently used by the elder to respond obliquely, without making himself seen, is to respond by referring to the word of another elder. We thus have an apothegm in two degrees: “abba so and so said that abba so and so said …”, sometimes even in three degrees: “abba so and so said that abba so and so said that abba so and so said …” [12]. We thus see a tradition being formed by the transmission of the word of an elder, by means of a chain of transmitters. Instead of a word from the elder, it may be his conduct, this or that action of him, which is referred to: the apothegms, in effect, refer not only to the words of the elders, but also their actions and gestures through which are also expressed his teachings.

Another remarkable feature: originally, the apothegm is nominative and bears the name of a great old man: Anthony, Macarius or some other charismatic character, inspiring of the tradition. But quite quickly, anonymous apothegms appear, forming a very long series: “An old man said …” Finally, the singular is sometimes replaced by the plural: “The old men said …” [13] The teaching transmitted is no longer that of a great elder, but is that of tradition, represented, in a global and anonymous way, by the elders. This tradition, this transmission of the words of the elders, was experienced as all the more necessary when one had – and it was had very early – the feeling of a kind of degeneration in the practices and of a weakening, even of a loss, of the charism of the word, having stopped putting into practice the word of the inspired Fathers. It happens with that charisma of the word as it happened, in the Jewish tradition, with the charisma of prophecy, which ceased after Zacharias and Malachi. The parallel is explicitly made in an anonymous apothegm: “An old man said: the prophets made books; then our Fathers came, who put them into practice; those who came after them learned them by heart; then came this generation that has copied them and put them in the cupboards, without doing anything else ”[14]. The charisma of the word disappeared, because the word of the elders was no longer heard or put into practice. Hence the need to ensure the transmission of the inspired word of the elders, and that is the task of the elders of the present time: they are no longer “pneumatophores”, carriers of the Spirit, as they say of Anthony or Macarius, but who are from now on, carriers, transmitters of the word [15]. This fact is what explains the great development of the apothegms, as I said, in two or three degrees. It is noteworthy that apothegms of this type are particularly numerous among those attributed to abba Poimén, a monk from Scete who is situated towards the end of what can be considered as the living period of the apothegms, which runs roughly from the middle of the IV century to the middle of the V century. This is a very important phenomenon, since this is how the transmission of apothegms is ensured from one generation to another and how the apothegmatic tradition has been constituted.

This tradition, first purely oral, experienced, for the same reasons, the need to be put in writing. We have received two large collections, which were constituted in the second half of the 5th century: one is of an alphabetic type, more exactly alphabetical-anonymous: in it the apothegms are arranged according to the alphabetical order of the initial letter of the monks’ names. , from Anthony to Or (the Greek text of this series edited in PG 65); it is followed (incompletely edited in ROC 1907-1913) by a long series of anonymous ones; The other collection (whose Greek text is still unpublished) is known from a Latin version made around the middle of the 6th century (Pelagius and John, PL 73): the apothegms here are systematically arranged, classified by subject, with a certain number of rubrics. This second collection seems to have been made on top of the preceding one, more precisely on a state of the latter, prior to the one that has come down to us: in effect it has indications of an alphabetical pattern. Before the alphabetical-anonymous collection, there were other, smaller collections, from which the latter was constituted, as the same author warns us in his prologue: “Many already, at various times, have arranged in the form of stories these words and good deeds (note words and deeds!) of the holy elders, in a simple and unadorned style, for they had only in view the [spiritual] benefit of a great number. But, as the story of most of it is done in a confused way and without order, that created some difficulties for the mind of the reader … ”, and then explains that, to put order in this matter, he arranged it according to the order alphabetical of the names of the monks, placing at the end the apothegms that were not nominally attributed [16]. 


Of those small collections that were, it seems, quite numerous, two are known to us. The oldest is found in a book by Evagrius entitled Practical Treatise or The Monk, written in the Kellia towards the end of the 4th century: this treatise ends with a dozen apothegms, of which the first are nominative, attributed to Anthony, Macarius the Egyptian and Macarius the Alexandrian, and the others are anonymous; These apothegms are introduced by a formula that clearly indicates the objective of this small collection: “It is also necessary to question the paths of the monks who preceded us in good and order us according to them, since many beautiful things can be found said or done by them.” (“ Said or done ”, therefore words and actions!) [17]. This is the oldest testimony we have about the apothegms; there are other testimonies that are referred to in other works by the same author. They are also cited in some authors of the first half of the 5th century, Palladius, Cassian and the historian Socrates, proof that at that time the apothegms were already circulating, at least orally, in monastic circles. Another small collection is found in the writings of a monk Isaías who, originally from Egypt, lived in Palestine throughout the 5th century and who is the author of some thirty small treatises or logoi; the latter provides a series of apothegms introduced as follows: “Brothers, what I heard and saw among the elders, I refer to you without removing or adding anything” [18]; follow a fortnight of apothegms attributed to different Egyptian monks, which are found again in the alphabetical collection; but here they are related in the first person, as words spoken to Isaiah himself. It is difficult, at the moment, to pronounce on the exact date of this text, on the authenticity of these apothegms and on their relationship with those of the alphabetical collection; But, like those reported by Evagrius and the other authors I cited, they allow us to arrive, in the history of the formation of the apothegms, to a state prior to that of the great collections, by revealing a time in which tradition is still live.

We would like to be able to go back further, to the very origin of the apothegms, in other words, to be able to estimate their authenticity, appreciate their value as a testimony regarding the monks of whom they intend to relate the words and regarding the environment in which they lived. One thing at least is certain: that these apothegms, in so far as they are authentic, have been pronounced in Coptic, the only language that almost all of the monks whose words refer to the Apophthegmata Patrum had been able to speak; only some monks of foreign origin, like Arsenius or Evagrius, knew Greek; the others ignored it. This is explicitly said of Poimén, under whose name nearly fifty apothegms of the alphabetical series are placed [19]. Of Pambó, another great figure in the collection, Socrates tells us that he was “illiterate” (agrammatos), a term that Saint Athanasius also uses in relation to Anthony himself: this is why it must be understood that these monks were ignorant of Greek letters [20]. Cassian, who remained for many years, at the end of the fourth century, among the monks of Nitria and Scete, of whom he tries to relate the conversations he had with them, affirms that foreigners, like him and his companion Germán, cannot talk with these monks rather than through interpreters [21]. The original language of the apothegms could therefore be no more than Coptic. Now, we have precisely in Coptic a collection of apothegms: Would that be the primitive wording? Unfortunately it is not at all: that Coptic text, which preserves a large part of a collection related to the systematic collection, is a translation made on a Greek text, as shown by numerous errors that are indisputably from counter-senses made on a text Greek. The original text is therefore that of the great Greek collections, on which all versions have been made, directly or indirectly, including the Coptic version itself. Undoubtedly, this text contains several Copticisms, less numerous however than what has sometimes been claimed, but they are sufficiently explained by the oral substrata.

Furthermore, the first great Greek collections that we have are of works of a purely literary nature and could only have been written in a Greek cultural environment. Its very form indicates it, since the alphabetical collection, which is probably the first, is constituted according to the Greek alphabet, and not the Coptic one. These works, moreover, reveal themselves to be of a literary genre that is certainly very widely represented in the cultures of the Near East and in Judaism: I am thinking of the various books of wisdom, but more particularly of the famous treatise on the Mishna entitled Pirqê Abôth, “The chapters of the Fathers” where the teaching received by Moses is seen in parallel being transmitted from teacher to teacher, from rabbi to rabbi, with an always identical formula: “Rabbi such said (or said) …”, sometimes: “Rabbi tal says that, Rabbi tal said …”, which recalls what I have called the apothegm in two degrees; sometimes, as in the apothegms, there is a small representation, with the evocation of the circumstances in which the word has been pronounced. But the closest analogies are found in the Greek literary tradition, where collections of sentences proliferated; Let us think of the apothegms of the sages, in the Apophthegmata found in the moral works of Plutarch, “Apothegms of kings and generals”, more particularly the “Apothegms of the Lacedaemonians” (Apophthegmata lacónica) that they offer, regarding the form, the most impressive similarities with the Apophthegmata Patrum: as in the latter, in effect, the apothegms are divided into two series: a series of nominal apothegms, classified according to the alphabetical order of the names of the characters, then a series of apothegms anonymous. It seems clear that the alphabetical-anonymous collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum has been made on this model.

If we consider now, no longer the form of the collections, but the genre of the apothegms, we are led to the same conclusion. The “apothegm” reveals to be of a literary genre to which the sentence, the “chrie” and the maxim also belong; It is distinguished by its conciseness. The sophist Troilos de Side defines it as “a concise and forceful word”, logos suntomos kai eustochos, a formula that is found again almost as it is in an apothegm: the brothers ask an abba Juan about to die, to tell them logon tina suntomon kai sôtèrion, “a concise and salvific word” [22]; “Salvific” is the proper note of the Christian apothegm, which answers the question: “How can I be saved?”; but the apothegm itself is a short, concise, “laconica” word, like that of the Spartans referred to by Plutarch.

Finally, if we consider the very matter of apothegms, as it appears in the great collections (about which I cannot unfortunately elaborate), it is verified that these are tributaries, from that point of view too, of a rich literary tradition: one sees there taken up themes, comparisons, proverbs or apologues that were widely expanded at that time, especially among the Greek and Latin fabulists. Therefore, the great collections of apothegms were not constituted in the monastic environment, where the apothegms were born and where a certain anti-intellectualism prevailed, even a great distrust with respect to books (I refer them, among other texts, to the one who cited a moment ago, where those who, instead of putting their parents’ words into practice, put them in writing and ordered them in libraries are punished!). Certain indications lead to think that this happened in Palestine, more than in Egypt.

One can thus represent the history of the formation of collections of apothegms: at the origin there was a teaching, devoid of any didactic character, given in Coptic and which probably remained orally in that language, situated in a well-determined environment, evoking specifically Egyptian features (a certain Egyptian chauvinism is perceived in the oldest background of these collections), realistic and concrete observations in the representation of the monastic environment and of the places themselves. First transmitted orally, these words were consigned in small collections, later collected in large collections, where at the same time an abundant new material was introduced: apothegms of foreign origin, especially Palestinian; stories sometimes very extensively developed; extracts, artificially put in the form of apothegms, of literary works (for example, treatises of Isaiah, of Evagrius, with the name of him or with that of Saint Nilus, of Cassian translated into Greek, etc.). These great collections did not cease, subsequently, to be enriched and modified, since the matter of the apothegms was essentially malleable and always capable of growing, and this, not only in Greek, but also in the numerous versions that were made in different languages.

The history of the formation of the Apophthegmata Patrum seems to be analogous to that which New Testament criticism has been able to establish for the formation of the Gospels, starting from the logia or words of Jesus: in both cases, we find ourselves in the presence of texts in those who have been consigned a teaching delivered first in the form of “sayings”, in the vernacular, Aramaic logia or Coptic apothegms, transmitted orally over a more or less long period, at the end of which small collections of words have been constituted, such as those “logia of Jesus” that made known, very fragmentarily, at the beginning of that century, the Oxyrhynchos papyri and, more completely, in a Coptic version, the Gospel according to Thomas, discovered in 1945-1946, where each word de Jesus is simply introduced by the formula: “Jesus said …”. These collections were then used for the writing, in Greek as well as for the apothegms, of the texts that we know, where the words of Jesus are inserted in a story. But, unlike the gospels that quickly took the form of a closed “canon”, where the agrapha, that is, the words not inscribed in the canonical text, are always left out and any addition is excluded, the collections of the Apophthegmata Patrum they have always remained open, susceptible to receiving new apothegms from other media or from other times, as well as old apothegms that had first escaped them, but that were preserved in oral tradition or in independent writings. On the other hand, while the Gospels have preserved a ne varietur form, the matter of these collections has always remained fluid and malleable, taking the most diverse forms according to the regions and languages ​​in which they have expanded. But, although covered by these successive layers, the Egyptian background has remained, remaining as the essential element, and it is mainly thanks to them that the monasticism of the deserts of Lower Egypt was able to preserve an exemplary value alongside all subsequent monastic tradition. both in the West and in the East.

A IX century Arabic translation of the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” (“Apophthegmata Patrum”), this manuscript was found at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai 
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